Wilde World: celebrating Oscar in London, Dublin, Paris, and Capri

As an Oscar Wilde enthusiast – indeed, as the proud President of the Oscar Wilde Society: find out more at www.oscarwildesociety.co.uk – I am having a happy week visiting the three cities where Wilde spent most of his life: Dublin, London and Paris. 

At the weekend I was in Paris, where Wilde died in exile and in poverty in 1900, and visited the Pere-Lachaise cemetery where he is buried.  Entombed with him are the ashes of his devoted friend (and probably first male lover) Robbie Ross, born on 25 May 1869, 149 years ago.  (In Paris, too, I caught the marvellous multi-award-winning play, Edmond, that tells a fanciful version of how Edmond Rostand came to write Cyrano de Bergerac and features, among others, Oscar’s friend and heroine, Sarah Bernhardt.  It’s on at one of the most beautiful theatres in the world: the Palais-Royal. Catch it if you can.)  Later this week I am off to Dublin, where Wilde was born in 1854, for the opening of Face to Face, an exhibition of portraits of more than thirty renowned Irish cultural figures, completed over a sixteen-year period by my friend, the Paris-based painter Anthony Palliser.  The show is at Farmleigh Gallery, in Phoenix Park, Dublin.  Again, catch it if you can.  His portrait of Sinead Cusack is worth the cost of the trip alone.

Oscar Wilde is everywhere right now.  He’d have been happy about that.  On the big screen there’s Rupert Everett’s film The Happy Prince, which is a ‘must-see’ for all sorts of reasons – including the debut of a major new star in Edwin Thomas who plays Oscar’s friend, Robbie Ross.  On the small screen’s there’s been Alan Yentob’s very enjoyable Imagine documentary about Rupert (or ‘Rup’ as the chums call him) and the trials and tribulations involved in the making of the movie.  In bookshops you will want to find Michele Mendelssohn’s Making Oscar Wilde, published by OUP and deserving a separate blog one day soon – if I can get round to it.  (I am supposed to be writing my own book after all, not just puffing other people’s.)  And on stage, at the Vaudeville Theatre, there is the third in Dominic Dromgoole’s ambitious Classic Spring season of Wilde’s major plays: An Ideal Husband.

The joy of theatre these days is that it is colour-blind, gender-blind, and age-blind.  This last means that not only can I follow up my own Lady Bracknell with my solo turn as the great Josephine Baker (a long-held ambition), but you may soon be able to catch the Romeo and Juliet that I’ve always hoped to do with Fenella Fielding.  (I know Fenella feels like a more obvious choice for Mercutio than Romeo, but frankly she can do anything.)  This age-blind approach also means that in An Ideal Husband we are quite comfortable with the fabulous Freddie Fox (29) and the great Frances Barber (61) being played as near contemporaries.  The play’s a tough one because it’s both a high comedy and a deep melodrama, but at the Vaudeville the ace cast pull it off.  The treats include Ms Barber as the wicked Mrs Cheveley, Nathaniel Parker as the politician-with-a-past, Sir Robert Chiltern, and Master Fox, who plays Lord Goring con brio and deserves all the awards that will be coming his way.  Freddie’s real-life father, Edward Fox, plays Lord Goring’s real-life father in the play with an authority and panache that’ll make your eyes water with delight – and the cherry on the cake is a delicious cameo from Susan Hampshire, wonderfully on song as Lady Markby.  Once more: catch ’em if you can.

If you fancy raising a glass to Oscar’s memory this summer, here are some places where you might be amused to do it.

1) Champagne (Perrier-Jouet for preference), Hock and Seltzer, or Absinthe, Oscar Wilde enjoyed a drink.  (Drink helped him towards an early grave.  He died on 30 November, 1900, aged only 46.)  Because I have spent the past ten years walking in his footsteps, writing my series of Victorian murder mysteries featuring Wilde and his friend Arthur Conan Doyle as my sleuths, (the first being Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders, the latest Jack the Ripper: Case Closed) , whenever I can, wherever I am, I raise my glass in his honour in a bar where my hero will have raised his glass, too.  (I don’t drink alcohol, so I usually opt for a glass of grenadine – or water.  It’s the spirit that counts.)  Wilde was born in Dublin, at 21 Westland Row, and grew up nearby at 1 Merrion Square.  A stone’s throw away was – and is – the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green – the largest garden square in Europe.  The Shelbourne, founded in 1828, was a noted watering hole for Irish politicians and intellectuals.   Young Oscar drank there.  The Irish Constitution was drafted there.  Adolf Hitler’s half-brother worked there as a kitchen boy.

2) In the London of the 1880s, Oscar was the toast of the town – aesthete, dandy, poet, wit.  Bernard Shaw said he was “the greatest talker of his time – perhaps of all time.”  Arthur Conan Doyle said Wilde’s conversational style was “golden” and that he took and gave in equal measure.  They met over dinner with a publisher at the Langham Hotel, just north of Oxford Circus.  Four years ago I unveiled a plaque at the hotel to mark the meeting.  Thanks to that dinner, Conan Doyle was persuaded to write his second Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of Four, and Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Another of Oscar’s London haunts was Brown’s Hotel in Albermarle Street, which has just refurbished its bar - beautifully.  (Brown’s had the first telephone in London capable of making and taking transatlantic calls.  Wilde was one of those who used the telephone.  It’s still there – in the Alexander Graham Bell Room.)

3)  Wilde was a playboy of the West End world, but he was a family man, too.  He lived with his wife, Constance, and two sons, in Tite Street, Chelsea, and his favourite Chelsea hotel was The Cadogan at 75 Sloane Street.  Lillie Langtry, sometime mistress to the then Prince of Wales, lived in the house next door and eventually sold it to the hotel – in return for a room and food for life.  It was in a room at the Cadogan that Oscar Wilde was arrested in 1895 and charged with gross indecency.  He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour and served the bulk of his sentence in Reading Gaol.   (I have had a drink in Reading Gaol – but only a cup of tea.  The prison is closed now, so my advice is: stick to the Cadogan.  At the moment the hotel is closed, having a complete make-over.  It’s due to reopen – with a Raymond Blanc restaurant among other de luxe innovations – later in the year.)

4)  In the summer of 1897, when Wilde was released from prison, he went abroad at once.  He settled for a while near Dieppe, then travelled south.  With his young friend, Lord Alfred Douglas, he took a trip to the island of Capri, visited the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe who lived there with his pet monkeys (when he was not in Rome residing in Keats’ old apartment by the Spanish steps), explored the ruins of the villas of the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius and recovered with drinks at the Grand Hotel, built in 1845 – now the Grand Hotel Quisisana, a short walk from the Piazetta.

5)  Oscar Wilde died in Paris in a small, first floor room at L’Hotel d’Alsace, 13 rue des Beaux-Arts.   In 1900 it was a seedy hotel with wallpaper that prompted Wilde to declare, ‘either this wallpaper goes or I do’.  Today, it’s simply called L’Hotel, it’s wonderfully chic and boasts a restaurant with a Michelin star.  (All the best people go.  This weekend, for example, you’d have found the theatrical agent and writer Michael Whitehall staying there en famille.)  100 years to the hour after Wilde’s death, on the afternoon of 30 November 2000, I was one of a small band of devotees who gathered in the room in which the great man died to raise a glass in gratitude and admiration to a poet and dramatist whose greatest play, according to Frank Harris, was his own life – ‘a five act tragedy with Greek implications, and he was its most ardent spectator.’

Gyles Brandreth